UPDATE, Sept. 13
For some different perspectives on the demise of People for Puget Sound:
Reporter Lynda Mapes interviews Denis Hayes of the Bullitt Foundation and others in her story in the Seattle Times.
Mike Sato, longtime communications director for People for Puget Sound, offers his viewpoint in his blog “Salish Sea Communications.”
Alf Hanna recalls the good work done by People for Puget Sound in his blog “Olympic Peninsula Environmental News” and includes this terse observation:
“Tom Bancroft’s comments to the press about not knowing the financial status of the organization are simply not accurate. There is nothing more needing saying than that I was there, on the board when he was hired. He knew full well what the situation was. He’s a smart guy, who knows how to read a financial report. But this isn’t about Tom. It’s about the Salish Sea.”
When a well-established institution like People for Puget Sound suddenly disbands, it’s like a death in the family for supporters and colleagues. Questions about what happened hang in the air. Explanations never seem adequate.
How could People for Puget Sound manage to survive and wield great influence for 20 years only to go under a year and a half after a new executive director takes control?
Kathy Fletcher, who helped form the organization in 1991 and served as its executive director for 20 years, seemed happy to pass the reins of the organization to Tom Bancroft, who had worked at the top levels of the National Audobon Society, Wilderness Society and other groups.
Here’s what Kathy said at her retirement party:
“Beyond what you can read about Tom on paper, I can now say, after working with him for a little over two months, he is the right human being to lead People for Puget Sound. His judgment is excellent; his instincts are great; and his people skills are terrific. People for Puget Sound is in good hands.”
I’ll come back to what Kathy told me today, but Tom’s take on the situation is that People for Puget Sound grew faster than revenues allowed from about 2007 to 2011 (before his arrival), and he was unable to make enough adjustments to keep things going, no matter how hard he tried.
“This was not expected when I took the job,” Tom told me. “I discovered soon after I got here that the organization was larger than we could afford.”
He says he took over as director in April of 2011 and within a month began to eye the balance sheet and worry about the future.
“I said, ‘My god, what have I gotten into,” he noted.
The organization had taken on a $300,000 loan in 2010, using as collateral more than $500,000 in reserve funds.
“We had a lot of reserves, but we had to contract back down to what the revenues were,” he said.
Near the end of last year, six full-time and two part-time staffers were laid off from a total staff of about 25 people.
A fund drive last spring could have helped restore the organization to an even keel, but the effort failed to generate the level of donations required for success.
In May, another five full-time staffers were laid off. Others left on their own.
“It’s not that any one thing fell apart,” Tom said. “The economic reality affects all funding. Foundations are not having as much money as before. Individuals don’t have the money to give. It is a tough time right now…
“I got to a point where I still needed to do cuts, and cutting staff would not work, because we wouldn’t have enough people to run the programs. I was caught in a bind.
“I thought we could try to squeeze through this. But I would rather we protect the mission and keep it going than try to keep us alive (until nothing is left).”
With board approval, Tom used most of the remaining reserve funds to pay off the $300,000 loan. The remainder is going into a transition effort designed to move the programs to other environmental groups.
Kathy Fletcher said she worked hard through the transition period before her retirement in 2011 to make sure everything was in order and a new director was prepared.
“This is shocking and sad,” she told me, referring to the news that People for Puget Sound would come to an end. “I never would have imagined that this would have happened.”
Kathy said when she left the organization, there was plenty of money in the reserve fund to cover the $300,000 line of credit and more. The group had been dipping into the reserve fund for two or three years, she said, but that’s why the organization had amassed such a large fund to begin with. The challenge, as it has always been, was for the organization to raise donations, she said.
As with any nonprofit group, it takes constant attention to keep the budget in balance, she said.
“Looking at how the economy has not bounced back, I can see that some cutbacks may have been necessary. It requires constant effort, sometimes a huge amount of effort.
“The fact that we borrowed against our line of credit was daunting to the new director, but that was a challenge,” she told me. “It meant a fund-raising burden, but it should not have resulted in closing things down.”
Still, Kathy acknowledges that she has been completely gone from the organization and does not wish to place blame now.
Mike Sato, one of the founders of People for Puget Sound and a public communications expert, lost his job during last year’s layoffs. Mike says the executive staff had worked for two years to prepare for Kathy Fletcher’s departure and the transition to new leadership.
“Some people will think that the charisma of the organization went away with Kathy,” he said. “But we made a real effort to establish the brand ‘People for Puget Sound.’ We were trying to say, ‘We are 20 years old and moving ahead.’”
During the 20 years of the group’s existence, Sato recalls other times when finances were tough.
“At times, some of us deferred salary to keep the organization going. We did creative financing, but we always pulled through, because we looked at this as a real cause rather than a balance sheet.
“Would another group of people have done things differently?” he wondered. “We did it because it was a cause, and you do whatever needs to be done. It is not financially impossible.”
Tom Bancroft said he is proud of the advocacy and policy accomplishments by the organization over the past year. He says he and his staff worked hard on the Puget Sound Partnership’s Action Agenda, on the Department of Ecology’s new statewide stormwater permit and on agreements dealing with combined sewer overflows in King County and the city of Seattle.
“If we can save the mission and keep the mission strong, I will feel good about walking away from here,” Tom told me. “Puget Sound is a fantastic body of water, and it’s critical to the well being of the people who live here.”
To save the “mission” of People for Puget Sound, Bancroft wants to shift policy, advocacy and education programs to the Washington Environmental Council, an environmental group that he sees as an ongoing “partner” in the effort to protect and restore Puget Sound.
He expects WEC to sharpen its focus on Puget Sound and even keep the name “People for Puget Sound” as a branch of the organization.
Meanwhile, restoration programs — largely funded with government grants — could be turned over to EarthCorps, another longterm partner involved in restoration projects.
Where grants are involved, an agency sponsor will likely need to approve the transfer of funds to any group taking over funded programs.
Mike Sato said it will take a firm commitment from other environmental organizations to keep up the watch dog functions performed by People for Puget Sound — particularly when it comes to oil-spill and vessel-related issues.
“Agencies will move forward,” Mike said, “but only as much as there is a constituency saying these things must be done.
“We’ve been wanting the (Puget Sound) Partnership to get its act together. We wanted to see the Partnership succeed. And now they seem to be getting it together, and somebody needs to be a watch dog so that things don’t fall by the wayside.
“It looks like the Partnership will be OK,” Sato added. “I’m just sorry that People for Puget Sound will not be around.”
Bancroft expects the organization will disband by the end of this month.